Genre mash-ups may be commonplace these days, but it took a mad genius to even consider combining film-noir and teen sex comedy back in 1983. Paul Brickman’s wildly successful experiment, Risky Business, not only launched the career of Tom Cruise, it set a new benchmark for substantive sex comedies. Here, we had an observant and erotic satire that always entertained and never sermonized. Through the use of film-noir conventions and evocative symbolism, Brickman’s classic takes the teen movie into shadowy territory while still remaining accessible. It’s a masterful script that warrants closer analysis.
Risky Business towers above its 80’s contemporaries because writer/director, Paul Brickman, was less concerned about the loss of virginal innocence than the loss of moral innocence. Our hero, totally unprepared for the shady inner-workings of the adult world, tumbles deeper into chaos with each new indulgence. Instead of letting Joel Goodsen (Tom Cruise) off the hook with a comedic slap on the wrist, Brickman pushes him to the edge of film-noir ruin. The only happy ending here is living to fight another day, perhaps a bit wiser and less hormonally obsessed.
Brickman’s first brilliant realization is that the lust-fueled hero of typical sex comedies is vulnerable to manipulation and miscalculation. Joel is inexperienced and curious about dipping his… umm… toe… into untested waters. All he needs is the opportunity. When Joel’s parents leave for the weekend it sets the stage for all manner of good-natured fun and debauchery. Instead of paying off this comedic premise with harmless shenanigans, however, the punchline dwells in a much darker place. Joel is a more deeply-nuanced and flawed character than you find in most teen comedies. Brickman takes his time building Joel up so that his descent into darkness is both hilarious and tragic.
First, it’s firmly established that Joel is less enslaved by his hormones than his unrelenting dedication to order and responsibility. Yes, he chases after girls and sexual conquest, but mostly he just wants to become a successful adult. That he defines success using the 1980’s benchmarks of unfettered wealth and power only compounds his anal retentive tendencies.
“I don’t want to make a mistake, jeopardize my future,” Joel explains to his upwardly-mobile friend, Miles (Curtis Armstrong). He’s an unremarkable ‘B’ student trapped in an ‘A+’ world, trying to placate parents who have already reserved his spot in Princeton’s freshman class. This burden fuels a cocktail of guilt, resentment and fear that makes Joel the perfect film-noir hero; totally unprepared for the sexual enlightenment and adult responsibilities that he so desperately craves.
Brickman’s script beautifully details another of Joel’s weaknesses, his sheltered naiveté. Of particular note is the sequence in which Joel first calls the object of his desire (and doom), the prostitute, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). He cowers in the corner of his darkened bedroom, clothed only in his underwear and an old baseball catcher’s mask. When the phone call finally gets too intense, he pulls the mask over his face, as if retreating to the safety and security of his childhood. Once the deed is done and Lana is on her way, Joel preens like a nervous boy on prom night; deliberately shaving his one pathetic whisker and donning his spiffiest sweater-vest combo. His strict socialization didn’t prepare him for this moment. For the first time in his life, Joel has deviated from the script so carefully written for him. He has fractured the natural order of things.
Having established Joel’s vulnerabilities, Brickman populates Risky Business with supporting characters who can expertly capitalize on them. His best friend, Miles, is an agent of chaos, eager to fuel Joel’s id. He even resembles a little devil as he goads Joel into saying, “What the fuck.” Lana’s pimp, Guido (Joe Pantoliano), adds a more sinister presence. Far from a one-dimensional villain, Guido, in his own twisted way, views himself as a mentor for Joel; offering heartfelt guidance to a boy he’s simultaneously trying to swindle. Lastly, and most importantly, there is Lana. Without Lana, Risky Business would be just another mindless teen sex comedy.
In film-noir parlance, Lana is the quintessential ‘femme fatale.’ Quite simply, Lana is Brickman’s most delicious creation. She’s smart, sultry, autonomous, and easily manipulates every man around her. There isn’t a moment in this film when Lana isn’t in complete control over Guido and Joel, despite their belief to the contrary. She understands the rules of Joel’s world, though she lacks the station to join the game. To Lana, there are marks and there are Johns. It’s a designation she’s created in order to survive in her world; a world that eats kids like Joel for breakfast.
And yet there is a depth to Lana that keeps you guessing about her true motivations. She likes the finer things in life, quickly identifying the expensive silverware or correctly guessing the value of Joel’s house. It’s not hard to imagine she once inhabited this suburban paradise before fate intervened. Just how much she actually cares for Joel remains a point of contention throughout the movie, but it’s safe to assume she’s never tried harder to relate to a John. When the film ends, we’re still unclear about her role in Guido’s scheme, which is a credit to Brinkman’s sly script.
Apart from the shady characters, Brickman places Joel in the unhealthiest environment possible for a kid with his delicate temperament. It is a corrupt, nihilistic film-noir world, populated by teenagers who value only money, status and sexual conquest. Their Upper Middle Class existence gives them a misleading aura of invincibility. It’s only when they step outside this blessed sphere, as Joel does, that they realize the foolishness of their assumptions. Hard work and dedication go unrewarded while sexual favors gain you admission into the Ivy League school of your dreams. These are the juicy contradictions that test not only Joel’s mettle, but his core values of order and responsibility.
Another key noir element is Joel’s first person voiceover narration. Though used sparingly, it evokes the same tone as a classic detective story. “The dream is always the same…” Joel says in the opening moments, which is the film-noir equivalent of “Once upon a time…” His delivery is flat, monotone — like a jaded veteran looking back on past incursions. When Joel observes, “It seems to me that if there were any logic to our language, trust would be a four letter word,” you wonder if you fell asleep and woke up in Chinatown. The pulpy narration alerts you that the stakes will be a bit higher in this story.
Risky Business is a testament to the synergy of the writer/director hybrid; directorial vision meshing perfectly with scripted narrative and theme. Nowhere is this directorial vision more evident than with Brickman’s choice of cinematography and musical score.
Sumptuously photographed by Bruce Surtees and Reynaldo Villalobos, Risky Business wallows in darkness. Most of the film’s pivotal scenes take place either outside at night or indoors with chiaroscuro lighting. The strategic balance of light and shadow only add to the sense of impending chaos. Even Joel’s bedroom window flashes with a red neon light. Indeed, we’ve entered a very different kind of Red Light District.
And there’s smoke… lots and lots of cigarette smoke that harkens back to a hardboiled era of private dicks and femme fatales. In the film’s opening sequence, Joel must feel his way through a steamy corridor to locate a buxom babe in the shower. In typical noir fashion, when Joel finally reaches his prey he realizes it’s a trap that could destroy his carefully-laid plans.
In addition to the striking visuals, it’s even harder to imagine Risky Business without its distinctive soundtrack. Tangerine Dream, the German electronic band commissioned to compose the score, initially turned in a rambunctious piece more befitting a teen sex comedy from the 50’s. Brickman famously flew to Germany and personally crafted a new soundtrack with the band, one which reflected a darker, more ambiguous tone. The result is a truly iconic soundtrack that effortlessly shifts between brooding and playful while always accentuating the narrative themes.
Perhaps nothing conveys these narrative themes better than the recurring symbolism. Brickman weaves various symbols into the film’s fabric, sometimes as a subtle insinuation and other times as an essential motif. Each symbol conveys the underlying theme; for growth to occur, order must yield to chaos. Every scene, every plot point, and every opponent in Risky Business exists for the sole purpose of pushing Joel out of his comfort zone and into chaos.
Take, for instance, the leaves Joel so painstakingly (even lovingly) rakes up throughout the movie. This ritualized exercise to restore order from chaos… rake… bag… discard… seems little more than a menial chore until later in the film. As Joel and Lana meet for the first time, co-mingling to the throbbing soundtrack, the patio door suddenly bursts open. The same leaves that Joel worked so hard to control are now swirling around their writhing bodies. It’s erotic and stylized, yes, but it’s also a powerful symbol. No matter how hard Joel works to maintain order, pursuing his desires will always court chaos. Joel finally accepts this immutable fact at the end of the film. As the blustering winds blow the leaves around his feet, undoing his diligent handiwork, Joel drops his rake and lights up a cigarette. If film-noir teaches us anything it’s that sometimes embracing the chaos is less destructive than fighting it.
The most powerful symbol, however, is the recurring appearance of the Steuben crystal egg. Joel’s mother’s most prized possession plays a key part in the film; first when Lana steals it (forcing Joel to pursue her) and later when she returns it (forcing Joel to trust her). The egg represents nothing less than Joel’s virtue. It begins as an ornate, pristine object proudly displayed on mother’s mantel. By the end of the film it’s being callously tossed about by prostitutes and pimps. All the while, Joel tries valiantly to protect it, even as it’s being used to manipulate him. In the end, the egg appears undamaged on the outside, but conceals a small crack on the inside. Nothing has changed but everything is different; it will never be pristine again. The film’s most delicious irony is that Joel still owes Guido $300 for the egg, which is the same amount that prompted Lana to steal the egg in the first place. Now that is clever storytelling!
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Paul Brickman’s imaginative script and bravura direction is that 30 years later we’re still waiting for another Risky Business. It was an inspired blend of outrageous sex comedy, irony and nihilistic drama that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the 80’s. Given that he largely disappeared after the film’s release, it’s possible that Brickman spent himself creatively on this masterpiece. Sometimes to create greatness, you must court chaos. And the teen sex noir is nothing if not fueled by chaos.